As we begin the 2012-2013 road icing season in the US, I wanted to challenge a common 'official' perception of what causes wrecks on ice and snow: people going too fast for conditions.
This one is a bit of a 'trick question'. Yes, driving too fast for conditions is part of the chain of events leading to loss of control. But calling it the cause, and leaving it at that, doesn't move us toward a solution. A deeper question needs to be asked: why are the drivers going too fast for conditions on ice or snow? The answers to that question can vary. Sometimes it's the driver's lack of awareness of the dangers ahead, such as is the case with bridge icing, the invisible icing from freezing rain and the subtle icing from light snow. Sometimes the driver is misinformed about the capabilities of their vehicle, such as you see when television ads show new cars racing through snow at high speed.
It's true that there are a few drivers that are going too fast due to simple carelessness and even recklessness (IE, the 'idiot driver' stereotype). But the data does not suggest that to be a factor in the majority of accident cases. The data suggests people driving normally and responsibly are caught by surprise when they lose control and crash at high speed. Remember, we're not talking about "obviously icy" snowpacked roads during big storms. The true road ice hazard is subtle and intermittent icing due to light winter precipitation, events that suffer from a lack of highly visual cues and public awareness. It is these conditions that cause the biggest percentage of deaths and injuries.
Attributing the root cause of road ice crashes to people driving too fast is similar to saying that plane crashes are caused by pilots failing to keep their aircraft in the air. We won't begin to have an impact on reducing accidents until we dig deeper than the status quo, finding the changeable root causes of why so many drivers are going too fast when they crash on icy roads. When we equip people with knowledge about the hazard in concert with a notification/warning when it is present, only then can we hope to see a reduction in accident rates.